An unsung tool of the Japanese-English translation trade – the calculator

Because of the need to convert uniquely Japanese number concepts, a surprisingly valuable tool for the Japanese to English translator is a humble calculator.

For example, the floor area of a hotel room or apartment is often given in 畳 () or tatami mats, the size for which actually varies from place to place, but for rough and ready purposes can be considered to be 1.653 meters squared. Meanwhile, the area of a temple garden might be given in 坪 (tsubo), which is considered equal to two tatami mats or 3.306 meters squared.

Of course, how one handles such measurements also depends on the context of the material you are working on. In a tourism brochure, one would probably convert these straight through to meters (or feet, etc., if exclusively for a US audience), cutting off any needlessly long decimal points or even rounding to the nearest thousand, etc., if a particularly large number. Meanwhile if you were working on a historical novel, you might purposefully keep things in  and tsubo, possibly with an explanatory footnote the first time they were mentioned, to add an exotic flair.

Another numerical concept requiring frequent translation is the Japanese imperial year system. Traditionally, in Japan, years are dated based on the number of years which have passed since the emperor reigning during a given time period took the throne. This system is still widely used in official documents today and also frequently pops up in all manner of other materials. Interestingly, this is only used for years – days and months are the same as for the Gregorian calendar used in the vast majority of the world (so at least those don’t require any arithmetic).

Some people probably get this system right away, but I struggled with it for quite awhile and always had to look up online converters to switch Japanese years into Gregorian years, until I finally figured out the trick (and felt pretty stupid when I did). Because the year in which an imperial reign starts is counted as year 1, to convert a Japanese imperial year to a Gregorian year, all you have to do is subtract one from the Japanese year and then add that to the Gregorian year the particular emperor’s reign started. I know that sounds a little tricky, but if you’re working with modern and not historical materials, generally you only need to remember the starts of four consecutive imperial eras – 明治/Meiji (1868), 大正/Taisho (1912), 昭和/Showa (1926), and 平成/Heisei (1989). So, for example, 平成13 = 13 -1 + 1989 = 12 + 1989 = 2001.

Like with our  and tsubo, example, it depends on the context, but in most situations one would probably avoid noting the era name and just convert the date to standard Gregorian. Of course, the date format itself (mm/dd/yy? dd/mm/yy? yyyy/mm/dd?) is a whole other can of worms. And next year, in 2019, the current emperor will be stepping down, necessitating the creation of a new era name and start year for translators to remember. Better keep that calculator handy!

A Quick Note on Translating Japanese Company Names

Just a quick note on how to translate Japanese company names/what to do when translating Japanese company names.

Needless to say, Japanese company names often come up in the course of translating Japanese material into English. For big name companies like Sony or Hitachi, finding out the official company name (i.e., does it, say, end with “Co.” or “Inc.” or perhaps another designation?) can be as easy as typing that name into Google, or even the English Wikipedia. For smaller companies, however, the process can be a little more complicated.

First, go ahead and pop that Japanese company name into Google and see if you can’t find the company’s homepage. Be careful not to just pick the first result that comes up – sometimes you will find companies with more or less the exact same name and who may have completely different official English name translations, or you might hit upon the website of a subsidiary or the parent company of the company you are looking for, instead. Also, you might be tricked into thinking a page dedicated to the company your looking for on a website which aggregates information about other companies is the website you are looking for. The latter is more of a problem when translating from Chinese, however.

Now, assuming you’ve found the real website of the specific company you are looking for, look at the top of the page and see if a banner image, etc., already shows the English name of the company. If not, see if there are any buttons near the top labelled “English” or the like which will take you to the company’s English website and, hopefully, their English name. Failing either of the above, scroll to the very, very bottom of the page. Many Japanese websites will use their English name for a copyright notice listed at the bottom of the pages on their website.

Next, and in conjunction with the methods detailed above, look for the company’s self-introduction page, often linked to under a button labeled with “[Japanese company name here]とは” or occasionally (and in English) “About” or similar expressions. The company’s self-introduction page will almost always list, in a tidy little table, basic information about the company such as their name, who the president is, how much capital they have, and what sort of business they do, among other information items. In addition, companies often list the official English translation of their company name here. I have often encountered cases where the English name here and the name used at the bottom of the page for the copyright notice and even on the official English site differed, so it’s important to check here even if you find an English name for the company elsewhere. If there is a discrepancy in the names provided, I would recommend first going with the official English name translation provided in the company information page, unless the name listed there is patently inappropriate for some reason. At any rate, if there is a discrepancy, regardless of which name you choose to use, be sure to leave a translator’s comment in your translation (via the comment feature provided in various document applications or, more traditionally, a highlighted comment in parentheses within the text) indicating the discrepancy and why you chose the name you chose as well as any recommendations you might have concerning the English version of the company name.

If no English version of the company name is provided anywhere on the official site, or if the company apparently has no website, you’ll have to guess at the pronunciation of the characters used in the company name (unless, for some reason, the company name is written only in katakana or hiragana). Often this is a straightforward process if the company name just describes what the company does, such as company names with words like “重工業” (jukogyo, “heavy industries”) in them. If the pronunciation of the characters in the name are not straightforward, however, such as personal or place names, you may just have to guess by searching on Google for websites which provide readings for personal and place name characters and choosing the one that seems most likely. If it’s apparently a place name, or you know more or less where the company is located, you can try matching up the name with a location, which will then tell you or help you find the pronunciation of the name.

For example, if the company you are looking for is named “大田重工業” (a name which I just made up and bears no relation to any real companies) and you know the company is located in Ota (大田), Tokyo and not in the city of Tsuyama, Okayama (which has a neighborhood whose name is also written “大田” but which is pronounced “Oda”), you can be pretty sure the company’s name is pronounced Ota Jukogyo and not Oda Jukogyo. Using the Japanese version of Wikipedia can be a big help in finding out whether there are any regional names which use the characters you are looking for and where they are located. If the company name you are looking for is apparently using a place name as part of its name, even just knowing what half of Japan the company is in can sometimes be a big help in narrowing down how it’s supposed to be pronounced.

Now that you’ve figured out the pronunciation of the name, you can test it out to see if it’s ever been used in English. You can try typing variations of the name, in English letters, inside double quotes in Google (to specify you want exact matches only) to see if the company has ever been mentioned in any news articles or websites which aggregate company information. If you get any hits, be sure to compare the information on the page to see if it seems to match the company you are looking for. If the company name contains any general terms (like 重工業 mentioned above), you can try typing in different translations of those terms plus the place or personal names that are part of the name with and without double quotes to see if you can any hits or near hits. With any luck, you’ll find a more or less “official” English name for the company.

If searching on Google proves unsuccessful (and assuming you’ve at least discerned a likely pronunciation for the name), you’ll just have to write the pronunciation of that name in English. In this situation, do not, I repeat, do not “translate” the name. Just leave it as is. The standard protocol if you don’t have an official translation for a company name is to just write it in English letters and otherwise leave it untranslated. For example, if the company’s name is “大田重工業株式会社” (or “株式会社大田重工業”, the placement of the “株式会社” part doesn’t matter) and you have no official name for it, you would write “Ota Jukogyo K.K., not “Ota Heavy Industries Co., Ltd.” (the “K.K.”, short for “kabushiki kaisha”, is how you typically write the legal designation of “株式会社” in English if there is no official translation [even though it’s really pronounced “kabushiki-gaisha“, I know]). The “untranslated” abbreviations of other Japanese legal designations, in the rare case you encounter them and don’t have an official English name, can be found with some Googling.

Regardless, and again, in any situation where you are not 100% certain what the company name is, be sure to leave a translator’s note explaining the situation.

As for romanization systems, you may have noticed I used a modified Hepburn romanization (if you don’t know what that means, take a quick trip to Wikipedia-ville). Hepburn includes a system for writing long vowels, but I omit long vowels as I feel using this will just confuse readers not familiar with the way Japanese is spoken, and this seems from my limited experience to be the majority view among translators. So, for example, I write the long “o” sound in 大きい(おおきい) and 書道 (しょどう) as just another “o,” not “ō,” “ou,” or “oh” (or possibly “oo” in the case of 大きい, which would be even more confusing for those not familiar with Japanese). Regardless of which romanization you choose, be sure to use it consistently throughout the document and, if the document is to be part of an existing translation, be sure to follow the existing romanization scheme being used.

Lastly, if possible, it’s best to just ask what the official English translations are of any company names that appear in the document to be translated before/when you accept the job. Of course, if the client has no direct connection to the companies listed in the source text, you will most likely have to revert to the method described above.

The importance of backups

A translator’s entire business is predicated on data; for translators, data backups are of paramount importance.

But there are other types of backups translators should have. One or more entire backup computers are recommended. If your system dies in the middle of a project that’s due in a few hours, you won’t have time to get it repaired before the due date. In tandem, and especially when working on big projects, it’s important to make periodic backups of the files you are working on on a separate storage device. A removable hard drive, USB drive, even sending emails of the files to yourself will ensure that you have most of your work and can start working on it again immediately if the worst should happen.

Going a step further, it’s also important to have software backups. Of course, it’s a good idea to have copies of the same software you use on your main computer on your backup computer. But only slightly less important is having different software that can serve as a backup to your main programs, as I was reminded just this morning. I was trying to open a troublesome Excel file, but no matter what I did, I kept getting an error message telling me the file was corrupted (my actions taken to resolve the problem involved repeatedly clicking on the file and cursing). This made no sense considering the person who sent it had obviously been able to open it. Finally, I rememebered I had LibreOffice (the spiritual successor to OpenOffice) and tried opening the file with that – wallah! Problem solved, filed opened. For some reason, LibreOffice isn’t nearly as picky as the official Microsoft Office programs when it comes to opening files and can be a lifesaver in these situations. Did I mention that LibreOffice is free? In fact, some translators do the majority of their work on it, apparently. I prefer not to as it doesn’t handle comments and other elements essential to translators in quite the same way as Word, which can cause problems (in fact, the very cause of errors requiring the use of LibreOffice to open a file may be because the file was created or edited using LibreOffice or another office suite claiming to be Microsoft Office compatible. C’est la vie). LibreOffice also still, to the best of my knowledge,doesn’t handle the “new” (actually not so new now) Office formats of .docx, xlsx, etc., and destroys the formatting of tables and comments in such files.

Still, having a few freeware backup programs can be a lifesaver, both for situations like the above and in case your main software becomes inoperable due to user error or even problems caused by updates delivered by the company that makes them. When you don’t have time to get your computer fixed before an assignment is due, a backup program may just be your salvation.

Other useful freeware alternatives for use as a backup or even as your main application include PDF X-Change Viewer, a program for editing and commenting in PDFs I’ve mentioned before and GIMP, an image editing suite similar to Photoshop that can also edit and export files in Photoshop format.

If you know any other useful backup programs, especially freeware, please comment below.

Basic Japanese translation lingo: 银联

In your translator travails, you may come across the term 银联, particularly if you’re translating documents for stores, malls, and the like, and it may make you nearly tear your hair out in frustration trying to look up the kanji. That’s because 银联 is not kanji but in fact full-on Chinese. The funny-looking (for a person who studies Japanese) shape of the characters are a big tip off. 银联 is actually UnionPay, China’s home-grown bank card, which more and more Japanese retailers are beginning to accept. Now you should have no problem if they pop up.

Quick translation tip: Felix won’t register a translation

At some later date I’d like to go a bit more into Felix and why I think it’s a great CAT tool, but for now I’ll just share a little point about using Felix.

Are you using Felix with multiple documents and now suddenly Felix isn’t registering translations? Apparently, as I’ve just discovered, if you’re switching between different programs (say, Excel and PowerPoint) and you switch Felix into Review Mode while in one program and, without switching back to Translation Mode in that program, attempt to use Felix in Translation Mode in another program, Felix gets stuck in Review Mode (which can’t register translations – the root of your problem). To fix things, you have to go back to the program you switched Felix into Review Mode and, in that program, switch Felix back to Translation Mode, after which it should register translations in that other program just fine.

For example, I was working on an Excel document and a PowerPoint presentation at the same time with Felix open. While editing the Excel document, I switched Felix into review mode. Then I close the document (and Excel itself) and tried to register a new translation in the PowerPoint presentation (which was still on Translation Mode). However, none of my translations would register and when I tried to switch Felix from Translation Mode to Review Mode and then back again, all I got were error messages. By opening up Excel again and switching Felix back to Translation Mode in Excel, I was also once again able to register translations in PowerPoint (and switch between Review Mode and Translation Mode without getting error messages, after shutting all the programs down and reopening them again).

Quick translation tip: mysterious acronym

Got an acronym that you just can’t find no matter how much you Google it? If you’re working on a document for a company, take another look at who you’re working for – that acronym may just be the company’s name. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to re-learn this lesson (including just a few moments ago). In translation, sometimes the answer is right in front of your face.

What will the end result look like?

Crowdsourced translation and community translation are translation models in which, instead of hiring a professional, you entrust the translation of your content to strangers on the internet. Sounds like the worst idea ever, doesn’t it?

We translated your website for you, Mister.

With community translation, you ask the community of users interested in your content to translate it. It’s a lot like having a bunch of neighborhood kids paint your house. They’re willing to do it for free because it sounds like fun. Of course, they really only have a general idea of how to paint a house, so you’ll have to show them. And provide all the tools and paint. And, even if you tell them you want the walls painted white and the trim red, you’ll probably have to watch them like a hawk and keep reminding them. And take care of the inevitable disputes that arise. And deal with some of the kids getting bored in the middle and leaving, or painting their name on the floor instead of painting your house. And I’m sure you can imagine the clean up you’ll have to do afterwards. And you’ll probably have to do the tricky areas yourself or hire a professional to do them, anyway.

Crowdsourced translation is similar to the above, only instead of asking people at least interested in your content, you relegate the translation of your content to a mass of completely uninterested and poorly paid amateurs, “volunteers,” or even just machines. It’s like the above, only paying slightly less than what a professional painter costs to hire a company that uses kids from a couple towns over and pays them 10 cents an hour.

Whether you hire a professional or let the neighborhood kids paint your house, it’ll get done one way or another. The question is, what will the end result look like?

Crowdsourcing translation – worst idea ever

Comic Book Guy thinks crowdsourcing translation is a terrible idea.

A recent article on Business Insider provided by some company called Smartling suggests crowdsourcing the translation of your website.

I particularly like that the page title reads “An Easy Way for Businesses to Get People To Translate Their Websites For Free.” As even their own infographic indicates, crowdsourcing involves significantly more work (and subsequently money) than just hiring a professional.

Trust the translation of your website to random strangers on the internet and spend more money and effort in the process?

As Comic Book Guy would say, worst idea ever.

First, you’ll need to hire people just to create that crowdsourcing infrastructure. Presumably, Smartling would recommend itself for this job. You then need people, either internally or provided by a company that believes you should trust your company’s website to strangers on the internet, to monitor submissions, control quality, and provide technical support. Smartling itself also recommends hiring or establishing a team of reviewers, involving professional translators, and creating style guides and glossaries. In other words, a significant amount of time and effort to utilize the work of the average Joe Schmoe on the internet, who may get tired or bored in the middle of the project, who has little interest or incentive in reading all those style guides you created, who bears no responsibility for what they are providing regardless of whether it’s trash (most likely) or treasure. All so that you end up with a website that looks like it was translated by a first year language student (because it was) and users who are disgruntled either because their translation wasn’t used, they’re not getting paid for all the effort they put in, or the translations are terrible (which, again, they will be). For example, everybody (who isn’t using the English language interface) complains about Facebook’s crowd-translated interfaces.

And let’s not put the cart before the horse. Unless you’re a gigantic, Facebook-sized social website, it’s unlikely you have the community of users needed to even attempt to implement this flawed idea.

Compare this to hiring a translator. You give the translator your documents. The translator translates them, doing all the research necessary in a professional manner and re-writing your copy to the best of their ability to make sure your website’s as beautiful in another language as it is in the original (if not more so), because that’s how a translator gets paid and that’s how any translator worth their salt takes pride in their work. The only effort on your part will be answering a few questions from the translator, putting the files they provide you on the internet, and, of course, paying said translator.

One other supposed disadvantage of professional translators, Smartling argues, goes as follows:

Twitter uses the word “unfollow” to label the button that stops following another account. If you ask an LSP to translate this they will likely return a phrase such as “Nicht mehr folgen” in German. If you ask a translator (or linguist) directly they will probably point out that “unfollow” isn’t a word. Twitter’s language is very informal in English and community translation has helped us keep that playful tone in every language (even the ungrammatical “Entfolgen” in German).

In other words, translators are apparently robots. “Error! Error! Ungrammatical phrase! That does not compute!” What makes random internet users any more likely to come up “Entfolgen” than a professional writer/translator? In reality, the reverse of the above situation is more likely. While your average bilingual on the internet may be able to understand and express themselves in two languages, a professional translator makes their living both through language and writing. A professional translator plumbs the very depths of their native and working languages, keeps up to date on the latest trends in the fields they work in, and hones their writing skills so they can provide the best possible product to their customers. The average bilingual person is far more likely to translate something literally, while a proper professional translator will reflect on the cultural background to the piece their working on, the intended audience, and how best to express the piece in the target language.

Pay for professionalism or pay (however you want to take that) for amateurism – the choice is yours.

Basic Japanese translation tips: Titles, names, “法律”

Needless to say, Japanese is a difficult language to translate into English. Just one of the many reasons for this difficulty is that generally there’s nothing to indicate that the title of a book, document, etc. is actually a title in a written Japanese text. Occasionally, titles are encased in quotes (「」), but this is usually only the case of book titles or other media, and even then not only is this rare, but quotes are also often used just to add emphasis.

Documents from large companies are often littered with references to other official documents, manuals, and applications. Often, these documents will already have an official English title. If you are in doubt as to where a particular block of text is a title or not, it’s best just to contact the client or agency you received the document from. At the very least, leave a translator’s note in the form of a comment in Word, etc., indicating your uncertainty and providing two separate translations (one that can be used if the highlighted text is an official title and one that can be used if it’s just a general phrase).

One type of title that is particularly easy to overlook if you haven’t encountered them before is the name of laws. Take, for example, “資源の有効な利用の促進に関する法律.” At first glance, this may look like a general phrase about “laws concerning the promotion of the effective utilization of resources,” but actually, it’s the name of a law which would be more properly translated as the “Act on the Promotion of Effective Utilization of Resources.” (part of the tip off that this is the name of a law could be the stiffness of the phrase, but sometimes the style of the document is just as stiff).

The official source for “unofficial” English translations of Japanese law names is theJapanese Law Translation website operated by the Japanese government (from which the above translation comes). Any time you see the word “法律,” treat it with a modicum of caution and plug it and the phrase proceeding it into the site. Often, however, laws are referred to by common names shorter than the full, official title used by Japanese Law Translation, which frequently fails to recognize the shorter version. Even if you don’t get a hit on that site, it’s often a good idea to also try the excellent dictionary composite site Weblio or even just do a regular Google search to be safe.

As you should be well aware if you are a current or aspiring Japanese translator, Japanese personal names are simply impossible to translate without help. Even the characters used in common names can be pronounced multiple ways, never mind the increasingly creative pronunciations and character combinations given to the names of members of younger generations. Further, even if you are verbally told the pronunciation, you still need to know the correct romanization, since several romanization systems are currently in use. In a best case scenario, your client will provide you with a list of all personal names appearing in the document as well as their proper romanization before the project starts. If you didn’t get such a list in advance and run into a name you didn’t notice before accepting the assignment, email the client. If the client is difficult to reach or has specified so, you could also leave personal names untranslated with translator’s notes attached to each indicating the need to fill in its romanization. If you are working with a big company and they have a website that is available in both English and Japanese, you can try searching for pages on their site that contain the Japanese name and then look for the matching English page. If the site itself does not have a search engine, you can search their site from Google by first searching for the term you are looking for, clicking the gear button on the right side of the search results page and selecting “Advanced search,” and then typing the address of the site you wish to search in the “site or domain” field on the advanced search page.

Unfortunately, however, most Japanese companies do not translate every page on their website, instead offering a sort of mini version of their site in English. In that case, you can try searching their site for the Japanese name and looking for other relevant information about the person such as their job title or projects they worked on. Then search the English site using probable pronunciations of the person’s name, taking care to match any hits you find with the information you discovered about the person when searching the Japanese site. Even if this method yields results, always attach a translator’s note. Especially in the case of personal names, there’s nothing wrong with asking the client to check your information; as mentioned above, it’s simply impossible to know the pronunciation or preferred romanization of personal names without being explicitly informed of them.

Possible pronunciations of names can be found by searching with Weblio, but I find usingFirefox with the Rikaichan add-on and a blank text entry field such as this one is much more flexible and faster as well.

‘Leading linguist’ says mediocre communication is our future

According to a recent article in the Telegraph, ’leading linguist’ Nicolas Ostler has stated that English as a lingua franca will soon die out, to be replaced not by a new language of trade but rather by machine translation. I have no qualms with the premise that English will eventually cease to be the ‘global language.’ Languages, like people and civilizations themselves, eventually pass away. However, as I posted just a short time ago, I don’t see machine translation truly becoming ‘translation,’ mainly because without a true brain behind the wheel, it is quite literally impossible to accurately translate any sort of content. Of course, many people are pushing for the machine translation revolution, Google included. Unfortunately, however, without true artificial intelligence powering your machine translation, all you end up with is garbage data that gives you a vague idea of what the original content actually said, usually with mixed up negatives and literal translations of figurative expressions that can lead to serious consequences when used for actual communication purposes. Google Translate is the state of the art in the field and even theyadmit both that it’s just about reached its limit and should only be used for gisting, not actual communication. In other words, the ‘future’ of inter-language communication according to Ostler and others is already here and that future is mediocre at best, dangerous at worst. To give you a taste of this ‘glorious’ future, I’ve taken the liberty of translating this article into Japanese and back again using Google and posted the result below.


According to a recent article in the Telegraph, hostler Nicholas scholars “major languages” is not in the new language of trade English as a common language is not to soon be replaced by machine translation rather, there is to go extinct said that the funnel. English is the language I no pangs of conscience with the premise. “Global language”, as people and civilization itself, and eventually passes away to cease to be final. But I have posted a little while ago, I if there is no true brain behind the wheel, the main reason is literally impossible to convert any sort of content precisely, the machine translation it does not appear in the ‘translation’ really. Of course, it contains a lot of people are promoting the revolution of machine translation, and Google. However, without the need for true artificial intelligence unfortunately, to supply power to the machine translation of your After all, it is garbage data, or a literal of figurative expression may lead to negative is usually mixed when used for the purposes of the actual communication serious consequences give you an idea of what vague translation, the original content of what you said actually. Google Translate, and even a state-of-the-art field, they both admit that should be used to create only the gist of it is not only the actual communication, have about reached the limit. In other words, According to the hostler, “future” of inter-language communication, where its future is a commonplace in critical condition, the best of the worst already. In order to give you a taste of the future “of glory” this to you, I will use again and Japan, Google has posted the following results, a letter of translating this article.